Puzzling Human Relative Homo Naledi May Have Lived at the Same Time as Our Ancestors

Two views of an adult Homo naledi cranium found in the Lesedi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system in South Africa, where the remains of 15 individuals were discovered in a different cave in 2013.
Two views of an adult Homo naledi cranium found in the Lesedi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system in South Africa, where the remains of 15 individuals were discovered in a different cave in 2013.
Hawks et al. in eLife, 2017

It's tempting to think that evolution works in a straight line, with clearly defined, graduated steps from primitive to modern. We humans are especially prone to telling our own evolutionary story in this manner. Evolution doesn't work that way, though, and we aren’t even the end point of human evolution, but works in progress. (Personally, I hope we are amphibious and have fins in 3 million years. That would be awesome.)

The latest evidence for that essential truth comes from the Rising Star cave system in South Africa, where scientists say Homo naledi, the unusual hominid species they discovered there in 2013, is surprisingly young, living as recently as 236,000 years ago. That means it was one of various hominids wandering the Earth at the same time as the Neanderthals in Europe; the Denisovans in western Asia; the ancestors of the “hobbit,” Homo floresiensis; and, in Africa, potentially alongside the earliest members of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Moreover, the researchers found three more individuals in another chamber in the cave system, one of them with the most complete H. naledi skull discovered yet. (You can see it above.) Today the large team of researchers published a trio of papers documenting their results in the open-access journal eLife.

In 2015, we reported on the initial discovery of 15 sets of hominid remains found in the Dinaledi cave by a team of researchers led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger. It was an unprecedented bounty of bones. Often, paleoanthropologists are reconstructing human evolutionary history from scant remains—a fragment of skull or jaw bone here, a femur or a finger there. But in the Dinaledi cave, there are at least 1500 bones, and likely a lot more, since only a small fraction of the cave was excavated by a half-dozen archaeologists—all female, all cavers, all slim enough to squeeze through a series of cave tunnels that narrowed to just 7 inches in one spot—who worked in extraordinary conditions to excavate the bones from a pitch-black cave nearly 100 feet beneath the surface.

The ancient creatures were no bigger than the small but formidable women who unearthed them. Slender and about 5 feet tall as adults, they would’ve weighed just under 100 pounds. Their bodies are a fascinating mosaic of primitive and modern: tiny, orange-sized brains housed in skulls with jaws and teeth closer to early Homo; shoulders suited for climbing trees but feet and ankles made for walking; hands potentially capable of making tools, but with fingers well-curved for tightly gripping tree branches.

The discovery made headlines worldwide. Most of us—whether scientist or science nerd—fascinated by the find had one question: How old were they?

DATING THE REMAINS

When H. naledi was first discovered, the researchers deliberately didn’t attempt to answer that question. Determining where a species fits into the evolutionary record based on its morphology is not an unusual approach, but it can also be misleading. In the past 1.5 years, other scientists have proposed ages for H. naledi that range from 100,000 to 2 million years ago.

In one of the current studies, researchers led by James Cook University geologist Paul Dirks conducted six dating tests to narrow the age range, including the paleomagnetic dating of calcite left behind by running water and a chemical analysis of three fossil teeth discovered in the cave using a technique called combined U-series and electron spin resonance (US-ESR) dating. From all the tests, they came up with an age range: they're most likely between 236,000 and 335,000 years old.

As eLife notes in a commentary on the study, “The estimated dates are much more recent than many had predicted, and mean that H. naledi was alive at the same time as the earliest members of our own species—which most likely evolved between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. These new findings demonstrate why it can be unwise to try to predict the age of a fossil based only on its appearance, and emphasize the importance of dating specimens via independent tests.”

American Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall echoed that sentiment to Mental Floss. “This is an object lesson in trying to date anything by what it looks like,” he says. While he doesn't find the age estimate surprising, he’s less convinced that H. naledi belongs in our Homo genus: “Anything as odd as this is always going to be tough to fit into both a phylogeny and a timescale,” he notes.

Did our ancestors interact with this oddball? We have no idea. But we do know that the picture of human evolution continues to expand in detail and complexity with every discovery like H. naledi.

Bioarchaeologist (and regular Mental Floss contributor) Kristina Killgrove, who teaches biological anthropology, human origins, and evolutionary theory at the University of West Florida, tells us that the long wait for H. naledi dates was “worth it.”

She says, “These dates reveal a much more complicated story of hominin evolution than ever before. We used to think of human evolution as a single lineage—the classic image of the progression from apes to humans. But H. naledi shows that palaeoanthropologists are onto something far more complex—and far more interesting! While these new dates won't make it into textbooks in time for the fall semester, I will certainly be updating my human evolution lectures this summer."

ONE NEW CAVE, THREE NEW BODIES

Whatever we have to learn about this cousin of humanity can only be helped by the other discovery reported today in eLife: 133 bones from three likely H. naledi individuals—two adults and one child—found in another cave in the Rising Star system. First spotted in 2013 by cavers, the bones were unearthed in three locations in a cave the researchers coined Lesedi. The two caves are found at the same depth, but they’re not directly connected.

As with the first expedition into the Dinaledi cave, the working conditions for the researchers weren’t easy: Wits University archaeologist Marina Elliott, who led the intrepid team of “underground astronauts” who excavated both sites, told National Geographic that while the Lesedi cave was slightly easier to reach than Dinaledi, she still had to excavate one set of remains from a 2-foot-wide alcove while laying on her chest, her shoulders pinned between rocks. “It’s extremely physically difficult,” she said. “I’ve tried to do a lot of yoga to get myself to be able to do it.”

Elliott would probably say it was worth it, though; the remains she excavated in that location yielded the most complete H. naledi skull so far discovered. Dubbed Neo (after the Setswana word for "a gift," not the The Matrix character), this adult has a larger skull—and therefore a larger brain capacity—than the other specimens so far discovered, but it falls within an expected range.

ARE THESE BURIALS OF A SORT?

One of the most contentious theories Berger and the team proposed when the first H. naledi fossils were discovered was that these bodies had been intentionally placed in the cave in some sort of death ritual. Berger and John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, revisit that theory in the third paper published in eLife. They point out that the caves are difficult to access and aren’t obvious “death traps” that individuals could’ve accidentally fallen into. Nor did the remains show any signs of mass death, having been fed upon by carnivores or scavengers, or of having been flushed into the caves by a water system.

So how did they get there?

The researchers write, “We propose that funerary caching by H. naledi is a reasonable explanation for the presence of remains in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers. Mortuary behaviors, while culturally diverse, are universal among modern human cultural groups. Such behaviors are not seen in living non-human primates or in other social mammals, but many social mammals exhibit signs of grief, distress, or other emotional response when other individuals within their social group die.”

They say that while there’s no evidence of symbolic thinking among H. naledi, such sophisticated thought isn’t necessarily a requirement for a death ritual. The “physical and social effects of the deaths of group members” could have been motivation enough.

“Such behavior may have many different motivations, from the removal of decaying bodies from habitation areas, to the prevention of scavenger activity, to social bonding, which are not mutually exclusive,” they note. “We suggest only that such cultural behavior may have been within the capabilities of a species that otherwise presents every appearance of technical and subsistence strategies that were common across the genus Homo.”

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

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2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

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3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

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4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

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5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

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6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

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7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

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8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

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9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

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10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

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11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

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Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

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12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

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If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

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13. SNES Classic; $275

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The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

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14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

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Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.